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The Supreme Court Judgment in Shreya Singhal and What It Does for Intermediary Liability in India?

Even as free speech advocates and users celebrate the Supreme Court of India's landmark judgment striking down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act of 2000, news that the Central government has begun work on drafting a new provision to replace the said section of the Act has been trickling in.

The SC judgement in upholding the constitutionality of Section  69A (procedure for blocking websites) and in reading down Section 79 (exemption from liability of intermediaries) of the IT Act, raises crucial questions regarding transparency, accountability and under what circumstances may reasonable restrictions be placed on free speech on the Internet. While discussions and analysis of S. 66A continue, in this post I will focus on the aspect of the judgment related to intermediary liability that could benefit from further clarification from the apex court and in doing so, will briefly touch upon S. 69A and secret blocking.

Conditions qualifying intermediary for exemption and obligations not related to exemption

The intermediary liability regime in India is defined under S. 79 and assosciated rules that were introduced to protect intermediaries for liability from user generated content and ensure the Internet continues to evolve as a “marketplace of ideas”. But as intermediaries may not have sufficient legal competence or resources to deliberate on the legality of an expression, they may end up erring on the side of caution and takedown lawful expression. As a study by Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in 2012 revealed, the criteria, procedure and safeguards for administration of the takedowns as prescribed by the rules lead to a chilling effect on online free expression.

S. 69A grants powers to the Central Government to “issue directions for blocking of public access to any information through any computer resource”. The 2009 rules allow the blocking of websites by a court order, and sets in place a review committee to review the decision to block websites as also establishes penalties for the intermediary that fails to extend cooperation in this respect.

There are two key aspects of both these provisions that must be noted:

a) S. 79 is an exemption provision that qualifies the intermediary for conditional immunity, as long as they fulfil the conditions of the section. The judgement notes this distinction, adding that “being an exemption provision, it is closely related to provisions which provide for offences including S. 69A.”

b) S. 69A does not contribute to immunity for the intermediary rather places additional obligations on the intermediary and as the judgement notes “intermediary who finally fails to comply with the directions issued who is punishable under sub-section (3) of 69A.” The provision though outside of the conditional immunity liability regime enacted through S. 79 contributes to the restriction of access to, or removing content online by placing liability on intermediaries to block unlawful third party content or information that is being generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted by them. Therefore restriction requests must fall within the contours outlined in Article 19(2) and include principles of natural justice and elements of due process.

Subjective Determination of Knowledge

The provisions for exemption laid down in S. 79 do not apply when they receive “actual knowledge” of illegal content under section 79(3)(b). Prior to the court's verdict actual knowledge could have been interpreted to mean the intermediary is called upon its own judgement under sub-rule (4) to restrict impugned content in order to seek exemption from liability. Removing the need for intermediaries to take on an adjudicatory role and deciding on which content to restrict or takedown, the SC has read down “actual knowledge” to mean that there has to be a court order directing the intermediary to expeditiously remove or disable access to content online. The court also read down “upon obtaining knowledge by itself” and “brought to actual knowledge” under Rule 3(4) in the same manner as 79(3)(b).

Under S.79(3)(b) the intermediary must comply with the orders from the executive in order to qualify for immunity. Further, S. 79 (3)(b) goes beyond the specific categories of restriction identified in Article 19(2) by including the term “unlawful acts” and places the executive in an adjudicatory role of determining the illegality of content. The government cannot emulate private regulation as it is bound by the Constitution and the court addresses this issue by applying the limitation of 19(2) on unlawful acts, “the court order and/or the notification by the appropriate government or its agency must strictly conform to the subject matters aid down in Article 19(2).”

By reading down of S. 79 (3) (b) the court has addressed the issue of intermediaries complying with takedown requests from non-government entities and has made government notifications and court orders to be consistent with reasonable restrictions in Article 19(2). This is an important clarification from the court, because this places limits on the private censorship of intermediaries and the invisible censorship of opaque government takedown requests as they must and should adhere, to the boundaries set by Article 19(2).

Procedural Safeguards

The SC does not touch upon other parts of the rules and in not doing so, has left significant procedural issues open for debate. It is relevant to bear in mind and as established above, S. 69A blocking and restriction requirements for the intermediary are part of their additional obligations and do not qualify them for immunity. The court ruled in favour of upholding S. 69A as constitutional on the basis that blocking orders are issued when the executive has sufficiently established that it is absolutely necessary to do so, and that the necessity is relatable to only some subjects set out in Article 19(2). Further the court notes that reasons for the blocking orders must be recorded in writing so that they may be challenged through writ petitions. The court also goes on to specify that under S. 69A the intermediary and the 'originator' if identified, have the right to be heard before the committee decides to issue the blocking order.

Under S. 79 the intermediary must also comply with government restriction orders and the procedure for notice and takedown is not sufficiently transparent and lacks procedural safeguards that have been included in the notice and takedown procedures under S. 69. For example, there is no requirement for committee to evaluate the necessity of issuing the restriction order, though the ruling does clarify that these restriction notices must be within the confines of Article 19(2). The judgement could have gone further to directing the government to state their entire cause of action and provide reasonable level of proof (prima facie). It should have also addressed issues such as the government using extra-judicial measures to restrict content including collateral pressures to force changes in terms of service, to promote or enforce so-called "voluntary" practices.

Accountability

The judgement could also have delved deeper into issues of accountability such as the need to consider 'udi alteram partem' by providing the owner of the information or the intermediary a hearing prior to issuing the restriction or blocking order nor is an post-facto review or appeal mechanism made available except for the recourse of writ petition. Procedural uncertainty around wrongly restricted content remains, including what limitations should be placed on the length, duration and geographical scope of the restriction. The court also does not address the issue of providing a recourse for the third party provider of information to have the removed information restored or put-back remains unclear. Relatedly, the court also does not clarify the concerns related to frivolous requests by establishing penalties nor is there a codified recourse under the rules presently, for the intermediary to claim damages even if it can be established that the takedown process is being abused.

Transparency

The bench in para 113 in addressing S. 79 notes that the intermediary in addition to publishing rules and regulations, privacy policy and user agreement for access or usage of their service has to also inform users of the due diligence requirements including content restriction policy under rule 3(2). However,  the court ought to have noted the differentiation between different categories of intermediaries which may require different terms of use. Rather than stressing a standard terms of use as a procedural safeguard, the court should have insisted on establishing terms of use and content restriction obligations that is proportional to the role of the intermediary and based on the liability accrued in providing the service, including the impact of the restriction by the intermediary both on access and free speech. By placing requirement of disclosure or transparency on the intermediary including what has been restricted under the intermediary's own terms of service, the judgment could have gone a step further than merely informing users of their rights in using the service as it stands presently,  to ensuring that users can review and have knowledge of what information has been restricted and why. The judgment also does not touch upon broader issues of intermediary liability such as proactive filtering sought by government and private parties, an important consideration given the recent developments around the right to be forgotten in Europe and around issues of defamation and pornography in India.

The judgment, while a welcome one in the direction of ensuring the Internet remains a democratic space where free speech thrives, could benefit from the application of the recently launched Manila principles developed by CIS and others. The Manila Principles is a framework of baseline safeguards and best practices that should be considered by policymakers and intermediaries when developing, adopting, and reviewing legislation, policies and practices that govern the liability of intermediaries for third-party content.

The court's ruling is truly worth celebrating, in terms of the tone it sets on how we think of free speech and the contours of censorship that exist in the digital space. But the real impact of this judgment lies in the debates and discussions which it will throw open about content removal practices that involve intermediaries making determinations on requests received, or those which only respond to the interests of the party requesting removal. As the Manila Principles highlight a balance between public and private interests can be obtained through a mechanism where power is distributed between the parties involved, and where an impartial, independent, and accountable oversight mechanism exists.


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